California’s Inland Empire is ground zero for challenges that families face in the 21st century, including low-wage jobs, pollution and mass incarceration. But families are at the forefront of solutions because these issues are literally in their backyards.
The Inland Empire can seem more like a lost kingdom, hidden in the smog-filled shadow cast by neighboring Los Angeles, which sits to the west. But within that shadow is a place with its own identity and a story the rest of the nation should hear.
It’s a place that’s ground zero for some of the greatest challenges that families face in the 21st century. The Inland Empire’s two counties are packed with low-wage jobs in warehouses that are spreading like clover across the beautiful and arid landscape, also blanketed with pollution from the trains, planes and trucks that fuel that work. The scourge of mass incarceration also thrives in this arid region, which is home to 11 federal, state and county correctional facilities.
But the intersection of jobs that can’t sustain families, pollution that sickens them and a criminal justice system that targets them is also one of the reasons the Inland Empire is a hub for solutions and hope.
Families are at the forefront of solutions here because these issues are literally in their backyards. There are waste sites oozing toxic sludge, school playgrounds that look out over a juvenile detention center and air so polluted that children are sometimes advised not to play outside, according to one organizer.
“This is where things we don’t want, that we don’t want to see are dumped, whether it be prisons, whether it be warehouses, whether it be acid,” says Sheheryar Kaoosji, executive director of the Warehouse Worker Resource Center in Ontario, California. “We are not just going to hide this stuff. We are going to take it on.”
In the Inland Empire, families and grassroots leaders are taking on the nation’s issues, such as wage inequality – only roughly 4 out of 10 jobs pay a living wage here – and the environmental toll of the modern economy. These problems are rawer in these valleys, organizers say, and harder to ignore.
“Everything is multiplied here,” one mother says.
The Inland Empire is also a place where families, leaders and the region’s issues are organically connected. How families in the Inland Empire most impacted by these issues are working together for solutions across politics, organizational turf, egos, race and ethnicity holds lessons for communities around the country.
Despite these lessons, the Inland Empire – contained within San Bernardino and Riverside counties – is often overlooked. Philanthropy has largely ignored this region, and few outside California even know its name. The nation overlooks the region at its peril though, since it likely holds keys to a healthier and more sustainable future.
It also holds hope for a more equitable one.
“This whole idea of the Inland Empire, or the Inland Valley, becomes for us, and for me in particular, the Beloved Community, what Dr. King talked about in the ‘60s,” the Rev. Samuel Casey, founder of Congregations Organized for Prophetic Engagement (COPE) in San Bernardino, says. “It is empowering people to use their agency to bring about solutions where they live, work and worship, because that is really the vision of COPE. It’s the mission of COPE to empower people to make the change.”
Meet the families and organizers who are working together to drive that change and clear the clouds that threaten their homes and region.
The Legacy of Stringfellow Acid Pits
The history of the Inland Empire didn’t begin at Stringfellow Acid Pits, but a long-running story of its fight for environmental justice did. Forty years ago, a community rose up to fight toxic waste flowing from the pits. It took nearly three decades, but families won, though the cleanup will take hundreds of years, and secured more than $100 million in compensation, according to the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ), a grassroots nonprofit born from the fight.
Today, the region’s families are still battling toxic dumps and new threats that emerged as the region became a logistical hub for e-commerce: pollution from trucks, trains and planes, as well as warehouses that are taking over entire neighborhoods.
Today’s Fight for Environmental Justice
Allen Hernandez is at the front of the environmental fight. He has watched warehouses turn parts of his hometown of South Fontana into near ghost towns. At the same time, fumes and pollutants coated his lungs, inflaming and perhaps even causing his asthma.
Now, his niece struggles with the same asthma and breathes the same polluted air in San Bernardino County, which has California’s highest rate of asthma in both children and adults.
There has been plenty of progress.
Years ago, for example, five organizers successfully fought to remove natural gas tanks buried near their homes. But since then, four of the five women have passed away from cancer. They lived in a cancer cluster, a community identified with unusually high incidences of that disease, according to CCAEJ.
“What makes the Inland Empire unique to the rest of the country is that our problems are very intense,” Hernandez writes.
“We have the worst smog in the country and have had it for many years now. We are the warehouse capital of the country, which has really exasperated our unemployment and underemployment issues in the region. This is why we have approached our organizing in an inclusive way that takes into consideration environmental justice, economic justice and social justice for communities.”
He adds that CCAEJ works on solutions that move trucks to zero-emissions and warehouse equipment to 100-percent electric, as well as fighting for jobs in those warehouses that pay enough to sustain families, offer benefits and go to those from the most-impacted communities.
Challenging Mass Incarceration
The Rev. Samuel Casey moved to the Inland Empire nearly 30 years ago, part of the second of three major migrations of Black families from South Los Angeles. These families moved because of violence exacted on their communities by the War on Drugs, the city’s housing crisis and the wake of the Rodney King Uprising.
Today, Casey is still inspired by the power of communities of color to challenge systems of mass incarceration, and by the work at COPE.
“Our story is really challenging the proliferation of prisons and what they both mean to the exploitation of people and resources in the region and the denial of access and opportunity,” Casey says.
It means “rethinking public safety and accountability, changing the narrative of how we engage public safety, not always looking at the punishment, and leading the nation in how we responsibly and redemptively and restoratively lead change.”
It’s a national conversation, and one where COPE belongs. The organization is breaking the school-to-prison pipeline, improving educational outcomes for Black students, engaging voters, expanding and improving re-entry programs for returning citizens and protecting and revitalizing their communities.
“We have got to change the narrative around how we view poor people because we are all part of one community,” Casey says. “We believe in the principle of ‘Ubuntu,’ which means, ‘I am because we are.’”
Neighbors: Prisons and Schools
The prison-industrial complex permeates the Inland Empire, perhaps nowhere more starkly than at San Bernardino’s Pacific High School. As students leave school, they can see a maximum-security juvenile detention center just across the street. At recess, Roger Anton Elementary School students look out at that center from their playground.
The prison’s proximity sends these students a chilling message. “When I am getting out of school, if I don’t succeed, you have a place already lined up for me,” COPE’s Casey says. “There is really no degree of separation.”
Your Own Voice
At the heart of success at COPE, and in much of the Inland Empire, are people who have lived the issues they are working on.
Demita Burgess, who leads COPE’s civic engagement work, knows firsthand what it means to return from incarceration. She works with teams of 20 to 40 staff members, many of whom had experiences with the prison system. They work phone banks and face-to-face in the community, talking with families about issues that affect them, such as reforming local schools and getting out to vote.
“Anytime you have more information you can use for the better of yourself, that’s a good thing,” Burgess, who has worked at COPE for nearly a decade, says. “We are trying to get people in the community to be advocates [for] themselves, so they have their own voice.”
Freight Yards and Low Wages
Sitting fewer than 100 miles from the Port of Los Angeles, one of the nation’s busiest ports, the Inland Empire is home to perhaps the world’s largest concentration of warehousing and logistics, supporting massive multinational corporations. But this growth hasn’t flooded the region with good-paying jobs. Instead, only about 4 out of every 10 jobs pay enough to support a family, the University of California at Riverside’s Center for Social Innovation reports.
Neighborhoods Consumed by Warehouses
Within the Inland Empire, the appetite for new warehouses can seem insatiable. Developers are consuming whole neighborhoods to make way for more warehouse capacity. Inside those warehouses, workers cite a long list of hazards, from stifling heat to unsustainable work rates.
Raising Families Amid Pollution and Freight
The Inland Empire is also one of the fastest-growing regions of California. An ever-growing number of families is raising children who go to school, playgrounds and soccer practices next to warehouses, breathing some of the most polluted air in California.
The leader of modern commerce, retail behemoth Amazon, sits in the midst of all of this growth, its warehouses sprawling over the valley floor.
“If you blink, there is an Amazon warehouse,” Casey says.
A Fair Share
These families are not fighting the new warehouses and economic growth. They are fighting for a fair share of growth that doesn’t threaten their environment and health.
“We understand how important our region is,” Sheheryar Kaoosji, executive director of the Warehouse Worker Resource Center, says. “It’s very important for the way our economy operates. We are organizing and demanding that our communities be valued on our productivity. We are doing the work, and we are not getting benefits, and we are doing something about it. We are fighting for a fair share.”
Today, for example, a coalition is working to ensure that a proposed air logistics hub – one that could handle up to 24 flights a day, according to the Inland Coalition for Sustainable Goods Movement – is developed with input from workers and families. If they can get this approach right in the Inland Empire, their work can help get it right at warehouses and logistics hubs around the country.
It’s “not this one project. We want a standard across the industry,” Kaoosji adds.
Families and community leaders know they can’t solve the Inland Empire’s problems alone. The region’s challenges – the pollution, proliferation of low-wage jobs and spread of the prison-industrial complex – are all connected, Casey says.
“If we are talking about environmental justice, environmental justice is more than toxic sites, it is more than warehouses,” Casey says. “Environmental justice is the entire environment. Poverty lends itself to no access, no access to a quality education, a living wage … then it continues to perpetuate the cycle.”
Communities Are Fighting Back
Nadia Solis urged public officials to listen to families who live and work in the region at a recent board meeting of the Inland Valley Development Agency. Better-paying jobs and cleaner transportation need to be part of any new air cargo hub.
“There is this concept of power, and they see some people who have it and some people who don’t,” Solis, a CCAEJ volunteer and student at nearby Loma Linda University, says later.
“There is a lot of work to be done … I see a lot of progress in regards to that. People are starting to wake up.”
Hope, Power and Change
“In the end, the community is the expert, not the developers, because the community is the one who lives here, takes care of the land, works in this place, and in the end the community is going to bring the future,” Gabriela Mendez, a youth organizer for CCAEJ, says.
“I think there is still hope. I think hope is the most powerful thing you can have, because without hope there is no change.”
Paul Nyhan is the storytelling and partnership manager and Elizabeth Posey is the program officer for the West at Marguerite Casey Foundation. This photo essay and the reflections of Inland Empire residents demonstrate Marguerite Casey Foundation’s commitment to lifting the voices of families and grantee organizations working for a more just and equitable society. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original Equal Voice content – articles, photos and videos – can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included.